Cannabis Corner: Of species, strains and ratios – Voices of Monterey Bay

By Marcella McClure

Hello Readers,

Now that  we’ve learned how to consume cannabis by smoking, vaping, dabbing and ingesting, we’ll move to another important tidbit of information. Did you know there are different types of cannabis?

And while we’re at it, can you tell the difference between a cannabis species versus a strain?

Let’s start with the species. There are three species of the cannabis plant: Indica, Sativa and Ruderalis. These three species look quite different from one another. The THC, CBD and terpene content in each of them varies wildly. Indica grows tall with long, thin, fingerlike leaves, while Sativa is a stocky plant with wider and shorter leaves. Ruderalis is a small plant with few branches making very little THC or other medically active compounds. It is of no further interest here.

In nature, different species usually do not breed with one another. But humans have always bred plants to create new foods and plant products. Since the 1960s, thousands of cannabis strains have been created from the Indica and Sativa species by standard plant crossing techniques. These two species are also been bred with one another creating what are called Hybrid strains.  So there are three types of cannabis strains; those bred from the Indica and Sativa species, or the Hybrid of the two species. These three types produce 1000s of cannabis strains all with unique names. In plant breeding the strains are labelled by their species name and a unique name. For example, there is a Sativa strain called Sativa GhostTrainHaze. This name means it is from the species Sativa and is a cross between two Sativa strains Ghost OG and Neville’s Trainwreck, adding the word Haze makes it unique. The Indica and Sativa species are the originators of all Indica, Sativa and Hybrid strains.  If you’re totally confused, I don’t blame you. The names are complex and getting out of hand as more and more strains are created.

It is important to understand that the different strains of cannabis have different properties, so you are able to determine which strains work for whatever aliment you have.

The hippies and subsequent cannabis growers kept breeding records for decades. While genetics can get mixed up over time, and the thousands of names can get confusing, for the most part DNA sequencing confirms that strains labeled Indica and Sativa form two distinct genetic groups with Hybrids sharing genetics of both species.  So cannabis species are bred to create new strains and then those strains are crossed to create even more strains with a wide variety of medicinal properties and many different names. It is important to understand that the different strains of cannabis have different properties. This is important so you are able to determine which strains work for whatever aliment you have.

Any dispensary worth its ounces will have Indica, Sativa and Hybrid strains of all cannabis products available.  While these strains all reduce pain, inflammation, depression and anxiety, they also have some different effects. In general Sativa is for daytime use as it makes you energetic, focused, motivated, awake and happy. Indica strains are for nighttime use as they are relaxing to the point of making you sleepy. Indicas have more of a sedating effect, while Sativas keep you awake. The effects of hybrids fall in between these two extremes.

But there have always been exceptions to these generalizations. Sometimes Sativa makes you sleepy and Indica keeps you awake. This was a mystery until DNA sequencing showed that the difference between the Indica and Sativa species is the type and amount of terpene, not the THC or other cannabinoids, that make one sleepy. It is the terpene myrcene that provides the sleepy quality of cannabis. In nature, the Indica species makes more myrcene than Sativa. It is easy to understand with so much cannabis breeding going on that sometimes an Indica can have less myrcene than a Sativa.  So the strain that was supposed to put you to sleep doesn’t and the one that was supposed to keep you awake puts you to sleep. Patients will experience this frustration less and less as cannabis growers and product developers learn the science of terpenes. Today an Indica strain is scientifically defined to be a strain that has more than 0.5 percent myrcene, while Sativas are less than this value. Companies are just beginning to use this measure to distinguish between Indica and Sativa. Most still rely on the old system of names that the plant breeders use, which works most of the time. But don’t be surprised if once in awhile a Sativa strain makes you sleepy or an Indica keeps you awake.

We have all heard that the THC amounts in today’s cannabis are far higher than those of the past. Is that true? Yes and no. When old strains can be found and tested, the THC content is between 5 to18 percent.  It has been known since the 1930s, when it was legal to study cannabis, that this plant cannot make more than 30 percent THC. This appears to be the case as today’s strains range from 1 to 30 percent in THC content, with the average being 18 percent.  But the concentrated products of the cannabis plant can be far higher than 30 percent THC. Cannabis oils that are vaped range from about 60-80 percent THC, while dabs can be even higher.

Now, moving on to strains. What’s in a name? Would a cannabis strain by any other name be the same?

Modern breeding techniques, however, have changed the name recognition of cannabis species and strains in other ways.  Originally an average Indica and Sativa strain made THC and CBD in a 200:1 ratio. Although these strains were of medicinal value, some people are afraid of getting high from THC.  Today’s plant breeders can create cannabis strains of various THC:CBD ratios. Scientific data suggests that a 1:1 ratio of THC:CBC works best for medicinal purposes. To meet the needs of people who are uncomfortable with the “high” aspects of cannabis, however,  there are now a wide variety of THC low CBD high strains available. The most common ones are THC:CBD 1:4 or 1:20.   Charlotte’s Web was the first strain created to help patients with seizures with 12 percent CBD and only 1 percent THC.

As discussed in the column on terpenes, which can be found here, various terpenes are found in different concentrations in cannabis strains.  The science of terpenes and the entourage effect they have in endocannabinoid system is currently changing the breeding of new cannabis strains. Now other names are being used to indicate mood-altering properties due to terpene concentrations such as Sleepytime (high myrcene content) or UpUp (low myrcene content) regardless of being an Indica, Sativa or Hybrid.

Recently, I came upon a cannabis oil from a strain called Black Lime, which is described as a creative, relaxing, motivating, non-sedating Indica.  Huh? A non-sedating Indica exists? In addition to providing the standard THC and CBD concentration for this product, there was also a color wheel of terpene type and amount. This cannabis oil is low in myrcene but not low enough to be labeled a Sativa and high in limonene, giving it a lovely citrus flavor. Providing the terpene profile of a cannabis strain becoming the new standard in the industry.

So does it make any sense to use the terms Indica, Sativa and Hybrid? Scientifically these terms are no longer meaningful but people are used to these terms so they will persist until we are all educated enough about all the compounds of cannabis that interact with the endocannabinoid system and know which ones work for what ailments.

In the next column I will discuss where hemp fits into the cannabis story, explain the term “medicinal” hemp (hint: the 2018 Farm Bill made it into a mess) and whether or not CBD is good for all things at all levels.  Another hint: If it sounds too good to be true, it usually is too good to be true.

And I’ll sign off again with my motto: save the holy weed from the damn greed

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